A comic looks at 40(ish): Ryan Waning brings life to standup

Originally published in Bangor Metro magazine (June 2017).

Ryan Waning tells me a joke. Two elderly men are in a nursing home guessing each other’s ages in an (ahem) unconventional way. It’s not tasteless, but it borders on the crass. I consider opening this article with it, hesitate, almost go for it, then stop. This magazine’s a class act, man.

I counter with a joke of my own, an old favorite about a pirate with a ship’s wheel sticking out his pants. He doesn’t laugh. Waning knows funny. I’m not funny. Waning, on the other hand—he’s funny.

He grew up in Auburn and graduated from Edward Little High School. After that, he went to UMaine “for, like, nine years and finally graduated,” he said. “It was like [the movie] ‘Van Wilder,’ without all the cool parts.” He got an English degree (“It’s served me well in the realm of fake documents that I own”).

Today, the just-over-40-year-old lives in Carmel and makes his living as a standup comic. He takes gigs all over New England. He’s been doing this for a long time. It started at some point in the mid-’90s, he said, when he heard about a contest called “Portland’s Funniest Man” and signed up on a lark. The 16-year-old Waning lied about his age to get in, and bummed a ride from friends because he didn’t have his license. He ended up tying for second place in the first round, and got eliminated in the next.

“It was enough to get the buzz,” he said. “I was at a comedy club with real comedians making strangers laugh. And I actually met George Hamm that night, who would be as influential as anybody in the careers of Maine comics over the last few decades.”

Waning’s respect of fellow Maine comic Hamm is evident. “I've seen him do his act so many times that you start to appreciate the flecks of gold amongst the sand,” he said. “You see him, and then they start to become brighter and brighter and brighter, and finally it's all you see. And you know, the 300 times that I've seen him do a set I've never ever been disappointed.”

He equates the experience of watching Hamm to “a guitar player seeing Duane Allman perform. It’s like, well, I've either got to quit...or I've got to be practicing a lot more.”

The best comedy is based on truth. It took Waning a long time to learn that. In the beginning, his material was blue, full of expletives, shock and awe.

“I didn't know how to write jokes, so I went on stage and...I'd say controversial things,” he said. “I mistook that ‘shocked sound,’ or that weird sound that a crowd makes, for getting over and thinking it was funny. But then I learned how to write jokes.”

After that, he said, his act started becoming more polished. It became a thing closer to what he saw his heroes practicing. Still, the “truth” wasn’t there—they were just jokes, he said, things he wrote down that he found funny. It wasn’t until he started drawing from real life that a breakthrough happened. He began talking about things that weren’t just personally important—they resonated on a human level.

“I started talking about my dad and his dementia,” he said, “and I can't tell you how many shows I did where people would come up to me after a set and tell me their story. And I never got that when I was telling [vulgar] jokes. The reality of it sets you apart, I think, and connects you to people in a way that a joke about airline food doesn't.”

Waning married his high school sweetheart about 20 years ago. Today, they have two daughters: “They're the best things ever made. They balance me out, dude. They’re the rudder of the weakly nailed-together ship that is Ryan Waning.”

It becomes clear that family’s important to Waning. About a year ago, his father suffered an accident that placed him in a rehabilitation facility. While he was there, Waning’s mother died. His father suffers from advanced vascular dementia. Now, he lives in Waning’s home with his family.

“My wife is a rock star,” he said, “and my kids are roadies. They're the backbone of this operation. They act like it's hard on me, but it's harder on them.”

Growing up, Waning had a contentious relationship with his parents. After high school, he said, he left home and never went back. The relationship was strained until “10 or 15 years ago, and we started putting everything together and everybody forgave everybody for everything.”

That’s about when his father had an accident that resulted in a much longer stay than expected. The rehabilitation facility, said Waning, wanted to put him in assisted living.

“His memory is hit or miss a lot of the time,” he said, “but he's been very steadfast, ever since I was a little kid, about not wanting to be in a nursing home. And I thought, even with our baggage-filled past, that I would be a crappy son if I didn't honor [that wish]. And I want to be a better dad to my kids. So I want to show them what it means to be a part of the family.”

Lately, he’s been using the situation as fodder for his Facebook page. Status updates provide light-hearted, human insight—liberally dosed with Waning’s wit—into caring for a father with dementia. The feedback he gets is encouraging.

“I put one of those up every once in awhile, and people send me messages and they tell me their stuff,” he said. “A girl I went to high school with told me that she is helping her mother as a caregiver for her father who has Alzheimers, and I haven’t talked to her in 20 years...and that connected us.”

“I know everybody loves Louis C.K., and I did for a while, too,” said Waning, “But if I had to pick two [standup comedians] that I would go into battle with, I’d pick Joe Rogan and Doug Stanhope. They’re quite possibly the best two working American comics, period.”

In late 2013 his dream became reality, at least in part. He was picked to open for Stanhope at ZEN Asian Bistro in downtown Bangor, a surprising gig for Stanhope, a well-known, nationally-touring comedian.

“It was probably one of the three or four greatest things that has ever happened to me in standup,” said Waning. “I got this email: ‘Hey we're coming to Bangor and we want to know if you want to open the show.’ And you know, after I cleaned myself up, I lost my mind. I think I called my parents. My wife. My parents didn’t know who Doug Stanhope was, but they didn't care. They knew I was excited.”

“He treated me like I was a road comic that he had worked with for 20 years,” he said. “A superlative man in every sense of the word. He was like, ‘You want to go back to the green room?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah,’ and we went and we sat in a box truck and drank vodka, like a box truck, dude, with a lantern. I was like, ‘This is comedy, right?’”

“I'm kind of in the middle right now. I'm working on the ‘great American novel,’ as it were. You know, it's funny—I've been referring to it as the ‘Richard Pryor’ set.”

When he was maybe 12, he said, he got his hands on a video of Pryor live on the Sunset Strip. His father disapproved and hid it from him. The young Waning repeatedly stole it back or borrowed copies from friends. He had a favorite bit he watched over and over, one about Pryor burning himself on drug paraphernalia and a subsequent visit to the hospital. “It's just one of the things that I've seen so many times,” he said. “And it became that formative thing...that 15 minutes of just how unflinchingly raw that was and still ridiculously hilarious.”

He doesn’t get on stage as much as he used to since welcoming his father into his home. He’s been taking the time to reflect on his act. He says he’s at the point now where he’s gained a sense of clarity and wisdom from experience.

“‘Build and exchange’ is the way that I thought about comedy like eight or 10 years ago,” he said, “and now I'm just waiting for... not waiting for it, planning for it—that final evolution. You know, I used to say shocking things, and then I learned how to write jokes. And I feel like the final destination is going back, and now that I know all that stuff, doing what I want again. And what I want to do is talk about things that are important to me.”

“I don't think I know what to do with myself, if I didn't at least constantly think about it,” he said.

This stretch now, about eight months deep without a gig, is “crazy,” he said, “because I never used to go more than a couple of weeks at the most.” He still obsesses about the stage and his act, and squirrels away ideas, writes jokes, follows the process. He says a Waning stage appearance is eminent. Waning 2.0, as it were, with hours of new material waiting to be unleashed.

“Granted, not all of it will be good, but it's almost like a whole brand-new [act] that I've never run in front of people,” he said. “And I'm simultaneously terrified that I will expose myself to the point that it's not what I wanted. Or I'm worried that it's going to draw me back into it so much that I get tunnel vision again. And I have a hard time doing anything else, which is the way it was for me at the beginning.”